Contemplating the tomb of John Keats for the readers of Irish Monthly, Oscar Wilde swooningly lamented ‘this divine boy’ who was ‘a Priest of Beauty slain before his time’. Critics haven’t spoken that way for a long time, and that’s no bad thing; but Wilde’s sense of a poet doomed and lovely, an aesthetic spirit too good for this life, would prove tenacious despite the changing idioms of the age. Paul de Man, for instance, a high-octane theorist who couldn’t sound less like Wilde, once confidently asserted that when reading Keats ‘we are reading the work of a man whose experience is mainly literary’, a man whose life had been chiefly led within the pure mental spaces of art.
Wilde did not invent this legend. Much of its popularity must stem from the early and memorable things said by Shelley, who rapturously elegised an otherworldly spirit in Adonaïs, and by Byron, who entrenched the myth of vulnerable genius in Don Juan even while he was sending it up: ‘’Tis